Saturday, September 30, 2006

Socially Conscious Finances: Spotlight on GLBT

When you're trying to incorporate your values into your financial decisions, one thing you're always looking for is good information. That's why I'm so glad to find the Corporate Equality Index from Human Rights Campaign (via mapgirl and ~Dawn). It's a comprehensive evaluation of hundreds of companies based on a range of important policies and practices. In other words, it's incredibly useful research, all in one place, ready to be drawn upon by all of us who'd like to make our financial choices-- investing as well as purchasing goods and services-- with GLBT issues in mind.

The whole long document is at this PDF, but here are some of the highlights from the 2006 report:

  • The scale, which runs from 0 to 100, includes a variety of issues, from anti-discrimination policies to diversity training to domestic partner benefits to respectful advertising.
  • This year, 138 of the 446 companies scored a perfect 100. Obviously I can't list them all here-- please check out the PDF!-- but here are a few selected more or less at random:
    • Apple Computer, Bank of America, BP America, Capitol One, Chevron, Dell, General Mills, General Motors, Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, US Airways, Walgreens, Xerox.
  • This year, 3 companies scored zero. They are Exxon-Mobil, the Meijer grocery chain, and Perot Systems (Ross Perot's tech consulting firm). In fact, although Mobil used to have domestic partner benefits and included sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy, these practices were reversed when Exxon bought Mobil in 1999.
    • Other low-scorers I noticed: Archer Daniels Midland, Bayer, H.J. Heinz, Nestle Purina PetCare, Newell Rubbermaid, and Nissan North America, all at 15.
For me, personally, my investing is entirely in socially-responsible mutual funds, which incorporate this kind of research already. But I'm glad to have this knowledge as a consumer; I certainly won't look at an Exxon-Mobil gas station the same way again, for starters.

Reading this report has inspired me to compile and share the good information that's out there on other issues that I care about, so expect this to be a continuing series. If you have any good sources of information on companies' social responsibility, please share!

[Edited 11/23/06 to add: Also check out The Advocate's list of top companies for GLBT workers, and be aware that these lists may miss things-- thanks to Dana at Mombian.]

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Free ice cream, good cause

Today (9/28) is Cold Stone Creamery's "World's Largest Ice Cream Social" to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation.  Between 5-8pm tonight, get a free little cup of Cole's Creation-- a flavor designed by a Make-A-Wish child-- and you're encouraged to make a donation in return.  Some locations will have kids' activities and other fun goings-on during the event.

Some might say this isn't exactly free.  But a) you don't have to donate (although if you don't want to, I'd urge you to leave the ice cream for those of us who will!); and b) if you're like me and have a separate budget category for giving, your $10/$5/$1/whatever brings you another step closer to your giving goal, instead of coming out of the "indulgences" section from which ice cream is usually paid for.  So it's kind of free after all!

Learn more, or find a location near you.

Links & More Links (including carnivals, naturally)

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Stocking Up on Savings (or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the rain check)

How many items do you buy when you "stock up" on good sale items at the grocery store? I always find myself in the aisle, pondering: How often will I use this? (How often should I use this?) How long will it stay good? When will it go on sale again? How heavy will it be to carry home? Do I have room for this in my fridge/freezer/cabinets/under the table/in some corner?

These are all very good questions. But instead of weighing them and coming up with a logical answer, I usually end up going with the "compromise" solution of picking a more-or-less random number "in the middle" of my options (often 4, 5, or 6). And it usually turns out in the end that I picked a number that was too low-- I run out before it goes on sale again, and have to buy it at a higher price or go without.

There are a number of reasons for this, none of them particularly good ones. Partly it's my illogical desire to keep my grocery bill low (even though it saves money in the long run, and I have way more than enough room in my budget to cover it). Part is not wanting to carry too much home on my 10-minute walk. Part is the thought that "Oh, it's on sale through next Wednesday, I'll come back and get more later," which of course I rarely do. And sometimes it's the slim pickings as far as variety during a sale. ("Hmmm, I thought I wanted to get ten cans of soup, but there's only two of the lentil soup which I love, so do I really want eight of minestrone? Nah, but maybe four? And maybe a can or two of broccoli cheese, even though I've still got two at home unopened?")

But recently, I've realized that I can make an end-run around all these problems when I use a raincheck. I have a little piece of paper, marked out with the maximum items I can get, which feels almost like a prescription, my personal permission to buy a dozen of whatever-it-is. Instead of on-the-spot decision-making, I can walk into the store knowing exactly how many I want, so I already know how many other things I can comfortably carry back, if any (yes, I could also do that during the original sale if I just planned ahead-- shush!). Plus, instead of the sparse shelves during the sale's normal term, I can usually select just as many items of any variety as I want. So I am a convert to the raincheck.

Rainchecks have other benefits, too. Beyond their basic purpose-- letting you get the sale price even if the store's out of stock when you visit-- they can be especially useful when the sale's timing isn't good for you (the items are perishable and you'll be out of town soon; you want to purchase the items right before a party or big event; you're low on cash right now). You can even try to time your visit right (at the end of the sale's term) so you purposely find they're out of the desired item. (Just be careful it's not a "while supplies last"/"quantities are limited" thing-- then you lose your legal right to a raincheck.) Plus, you can save your raincheck to match it up with some great coupons if you're a couponer (I'm not).

How about you? How many items do you buy when you "stock up" on a good price? Do you ever find yourself buying less than you should? And do you often use rainchecks?

(By the way, did you know that the term "rain check" comes from baseball? Back in the late 1800s, if a baseball game was rained out, everyone and their mother would claim they'd been there, trying to get into the make-up game for free. Since they gave up their original ticket when they entered the park, there was no proof one way or the other. So teams started attaching a "rain check"-- a tear-off stub-- that fans could use to gain entry to the rescheduled game. So we got both the invention of the ticket stub, and a handy new phrase!)

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Are there four kinds of charitable giving?

I was reading a Laura Rowley article at Yahoo Finance on charitable giving, and came across this section:

Boone asked us to sort our giving into one of four categories: Honored obligations, social/fun giving, passionate giving, and strategic/transformative giving. Honored obligations are the groups we feel compelled to support, such as a college alma mater, or a church or synagogue. Religious entities received $88 billion -- the bulk of charitable contributions in 2004 -- while education is in second place, at $34 billion, according to Giving USA.

Social/fun giving includes the cookies you buy from the Girl Scout next door, the art museum you support that has terrific parties or exclusive family night events, or the tickets you purchase for a charitable golf outing because your boss is on the group's board.

Passionate giving, on the other hand, goes to causes that reflect your deepest beliefs or ideals. Strategic/transformative giving provides the resources for making systemic changes in society -- proactively addressing the underlying cause of an issue, rather than treating the symptoms.
Does this ring true for you? If so, how does your giving fit into the various categories?

I don't really have any "honored obligations," but I know that plenty of people do, so it makes sense as a category. The "social/fun" area doesn't make up a large portion for me, but is definitely there occasionally-- I'd guess something like winning a nifty prize in a silent auction would fall into that area, or a donation to a blogger's kid in need who I feel a connection to.

As for the last two... for me, those categories overlap almost completely, and make up the bulk of my giving. It is hard for me to be really passionate about something unless it is also strategic and addresses underlying causes; that's one of my three priorities I identified in my giving plan. So breaking "passionate" and "strategic" into two groups seems redundant to me-- but that might just be a personal thing. I can see how people might feel their passion is in, say, supporting music/the arts, which doesn't really hit the root causes of society's problems.

(By the way, although it's not really emphasized in the article, I think these categories could work just as well if it's time you're donating, instead of/in addition to money.)

So, what do you think? Do these categories make sense, and are they useful? Roughly how much of your giving-- time and/or money-- falls into each? Are there other ways of categorizing that might be more helpful? (For example, I was thinking "individuals" vs "organizations"-- ie, giving to a particular homeless person vs giving to an organization for the homeless.) Or do we not need these categories at all?

Friday, September 22, 2006

Resume tips for internal promotions?

Okay, I'm shamelessly taking advantage of this blog by asking, but if I can gather some good tips hopefully they'll be of use to others, too.  I'm applying for an internal promotion and need to submit my resume, and I have no idea what I'm doing!  I've never been in this situation before, but I'm sure many of you have (and some of you are veritable career-advice gurus!).

What are the differences between a resume designed for an external employer and one for your current employer?  Are there any pitfalls to avoid, or things to take advantage of?  Or should I be following the standard resume-prep approaches and not treating this any differently?

(FYI, the new position is basically my current job with "Senior" tacked onto the front of it-- it has many of the same core responsibilities, but also involves more leadership, independent decision-making, and input on big-picture strategy.)

I've always felt a little uncomfortable with the "I'm so great" aspect of resumes.  Obviously I want to highlight my accomplishments and put the best possible spin on them.  But I have a hard time figuring out where the line is between phrasing things in the most impressive manner and overstating my case.  And I feel especially sensitive about this since it's at my current place of employment; I keep imagining them reading the resume and thinking "Whoa, she's full of herself.  Yes, she was involved in Project X, but I wouldn't say she 'played a key role.'  She says she 'proposed and initiated important projects in her department' but some of those ended up being a waste of time. Sure, she 'helped train and integrate newer colleagues Y and Z' but they're quick learners and I don't think she made much of a difference."   So I feel like I will then end up leaning towards understatement, which is probably also not the right move.  Any tips on finding the right balance?

Also, I wonder how much I should focus on the aspects of my performance which are relevant to the new responsibilities (i.e. leadership-type stuff) and how much I should talk about my success in other areas of my job which I would continue to be responsible for.  Should I act like I'm applying only for the part of the job that's new, or include the brag-worthy work I've done on things in my current job description?

(And tangentially, since I'm still in my first full-time job out of college, should the resume be entirely focused on what I've accomplished in this job?  I assume I should stick with the functional-resume format, and I'm guessing they don't want to hear about what I did in college anymore.)

Share your experience and your wisdom, and I will listen avidly, I promise!  And in an effort to keep this from being entirely take-take-take on my part, here's the only real article I found about this issue, so if you're in my shoes, take a peek.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

How to enjoy baseball games cheaply

I consider myself something of an expert on enjoying baseball cheaply, as I am both a huge baseball fan and a huge cheapskate. Although it's not the most frugal entertainment there is, I find it's pretty easy to have a frugal, fun time at baseball games if you keep some money-saving strategies in mind. (Although these tips are baseball-focused since that's where my experience lies, I have no doubt that some are applicable to other sports, and beyond.)

Save money on parking

  • Take public transit if you can. Getting in and out of the ballpark area by car is not only pricey but a big hassle. Who wants to sit in traffic, the car idling and wasting gas and polluting the air, inching along ever-so-slowly? Investigate your public transportation options instead.
  • Park farther away from the stadium. If you're willing to walk a little (you'll get a better experience of the neighborhood and its atmosphere-- a plus at Wrigley, not-so-much in Detroit-- and heck, you're about to sit for three or four hours anyway), skip the up-close official lots. Prices typically go down the farther away you go. If you're with a group, you can all walk together, or the driver can drop the gang off first and catch up later.
Save money on tickets
  • Look for days when tickets are cheaper. Nowadays most ballparks have some sort of tiered pricing system; games during the summer, on weekend days, and/or against popular opponents will cost you extra, while if you try spring or fall, weekdays, and/or a non-rival, your cost drops right off the bat. There are also some teams that have a special ultra-discount day (Milwaukee's Dollar Day comes to mind). And keep an eye out for promotions, when kids/students/seniors/military/whoever get free or discounted tickets.
  • Consider the cheap seats. Especially if you're going to a game that won't be well-attended, you may have ample opportunity to relocate to better seats once you're inside the park-- so why not pick the cheapest admission price you can?
  • Don't pay Ticketmaster fees if you don't have to. Buy at the ballpark ahead of time if you're nearby and you can. Or do a little research about how well-attended the game is likely to be, and if your tickets aren't going to sell out, buy day-of and save yourself the fees.
  • Look into standing-room-only tickets. If standing will ruin your enjoyment then don't bother. But one alternative to buying pricey tickets to a popular game ahead of time is to get standing-room tickets the day of. They're cheap, and you may be able to grab someone's empty seats mid-game. These tickets are often not advertised or promoted, though, so you'll want to ask specifically about them.
Save money on food
  • Bring food and drinks from home. Ballpark food can get really pricey, but most stadiums don't care if you bring in your own food. Sandwiches, veggies and cheese and crackers, chips, anything non-perishable should work fine. If you're looking for classic ballpark food, peanuts and crackerjacks are easy; if you're creative, you can probably figure out adaptations of other favorites. And don't forget to bring bottled water-- or bottles to fill at the water fountain, if you're not picky. (However, you'll want to avoid any glass bottles or other containers; those aren't permitted.)
  • Buy food and drinks outside the ballpark. If you haven't prepared in advance, don't want to lug the stuff from home, or are just craving something freshly cooked, you can stop somewhere just before you enter. Many parks have restaurants nearby, and almost all will have hawkers sitting around outside with peanuts, candy, bottled water, and maybe much more.
  • Eat before you leave. Games are long, so you'll probably want a snack of some kind, but filling up before you head out makes the whole process easier.
  • Get a free soda for your designated driver. Most ballparks offer this; look for the Guest Services area.
  • Dress appropriately for the weather. Wait, hear me out on this one! Some games can get really chilly (Wrigley Field in April, I'm talkin' to you...) and buying coffee, hot chocolate, or other warm food and drink becomes a necessity. That's a place I don't cut corners, when it's me shivering away. But it's a lot simpler to remember to wear enough layers in the first place!
Save money on souvenirs
  • Check the promotion schedule. From hats and bats to figurines and bobble-heads, you can pick up a souvenir just for walking through the gate. (And keep your eyes open at the end of the game for extras that have been left behind.)
  • An autograph can be an unforgettable souvenir. If you come early and/or stay late, you may be able to nab the autograph of a favorite star. For me, the fun of it isn't the autograph itself, but the experience of being ThisClose to the player and maybe a brief snippet of dialogue to be remembered ever after. It may not be your cup of tea, though.
  • Grab souvenir cups after the game. Most ballparks sell soda in souvenir cups, and many of the cups can be very neat. If you want to nab one (or more), you've got two options-- buy the cup with soda inside, or wait until the game's over and then grab yourself one, two, six of the cups that are inevitably left behind all around you. It's not as icky as it sounds; rinse 'em out at the water fountain or bathroom sink, and clean fully at home. (You can do the same for those baseball cap-bowls they serve ice cream in, if you want.)
  • Find alternate ways to get the souvenirs you want. If you, or your kids, desperately want a particular souvenir, there's cheaper places to get them than inside the stadium itself. You can get your T-shirts, jerseys, caps, or whatever else either before or after the game-- from one of the ubiquitous hawkers if you're fine with knock-offs; from a local store; or even over the internet.
Don't forget to have fun!
  • If any of these tips make you cringe-- ignore them! Going to a ballgame is about having fun, and if for you that means premium seats, a great rivalry on a sunny Saturday in June, hot dogs and beer, then by all means, go for it. But it never hurts to think about what things are your top priorities -- and how you might be able to save a little money on the things that aren't.
Any other tips or comments?

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A ton of great links you won't want to miss

There are all sorts of posts I've been lax about linking to, so without further ado:

  • At Tired But Happy, there's Part 1 and Part 2 of a fantastic exploration of the ethics of being a landlord and the possibilities of sharing profits with your renters.
  • That post reminded me of one by Nina at Queercents more than 3 weeks ago that I'd meant to link to but had forgotten. She writes about her role as a landlord and ponders how it fits into the big picture of the divide between rich and poor, home-owners and renters.
  • More recently at Queercents, ~Dawn wrote about, which is like Prosper except the loans go to microfinancing poor individuals in developing countries, and you don't get interest.
  • MyMoneyForest links to a study that finds racial discrimination in mortgage lending; minorities get higher interest rates and are more often denied.
  • I forgot to link to the great big post of personal finance how-to's at AllFinancialMatters! Oops, sorry!
  • And, I should not forget to promote the carnivals that are so kind as to include me this week:

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Fight restaurant cravings by making restaurant meals at home

One way I've found to keep my eating out in control is to figure out how to make some of my favorite restaurant dishes at home. Sure, they probably won't taste quite as good. And part of the enjoyment of eating out is not having to do all the darn work to make it! But, at least for me, another reason I'm often lured into eating out instead of eating in is that I'm craving a particular favorite dish.

So I've tried to experiment with making these favorites myself. Of course this doesn't always work. In some cases, the pleasure is not in the dish itself but how well it's executed. And in other cases, like my beloved Chicago-style deep dish spinach stuffed pizza from Giordano's, recreating the taste would be incredibly complicated and still likely fall short. But there's certainly a place for this approach.

For me, one example is enchiladas. I used to go out for Mexican a lot because I love cheese enchiladas and I had no idea how to make decent-tasting ones at home. I'd attempted it once with a store-bought sauce and it was terrible, and that put me off trying for awhile. So when I was in the mood for enchiladas, I'd tell myself, "Tonight's a night to go out to a Mexican restaurant."

But eventually-- I think it was actually one night when I was home and had changed into comfy clothes and the weather was lousy and I didn't want to go out anywhere-- I pushed myself to find an enchilada recipe I could make at home and be happy with. So I searched around the internet, and I experimented, and I found a recipe I really enjoyed. So now when I'm in the mood for enchiladas, I have the option of making cheap and tasty ones myself at home, and that's usually what I choose.

So am I the only one who gets tempted out to restaurants by the prospect of specific delicious dishes? And who tries to find ways to recreate them at home instead? Heck, if there's actually a lot of us, we could even have a recipe swap...

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Vacation days: do you use them or lose them?

How many vacation days do you get?  And do you take all those you're entitled to?  According to an article in today's RedEye (the Chicago Tribune "lite"), 574 million vacation days a year go unused in America.
We already get relatively little paid vacation to start with.  According to the article, Americans average 14 vacation days a year-- and 25% of U.S. employees get no paid days off (of any kind, including sick days and holidays).  Compare that to European countries, where employers are required by law to give 20 or 25 days of vacation.  The U.S. is the only industrialized country without laws giving employees the right to paid vacation.
And then, even though we have less vacation days to begin with, we still leave more days unused-- 4 a year, on average, compared to 1 or 2 in European countries.  So we actually end up taking less than half the amount of vacation as our European counterparts.
The article includes a quote:
Culturally, it might be a matter of priorities: Europeans may prefer to be rewarded for their work with vacation, while Americans like having one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world and are willing to work longer to get paid more, Allegretto said.
That is, Europeans tend to choose time over money, while Americans pick money over time.  If you take it a step further, Europeans prefer time, and Americans prefer "things" (yes, I know in some cases people are saving the money, so it's "security" or "time in the future" versus "time now"... but in a lot of cases, really, it's "things").  Obviously these sorts of choices fit into a much larger cultural context, both as far as the relative value of time versus money/"things" as well as how taking time off is viewed in the workplace.
The organization Take Back Your Time is making a valiant attempt to affect this greater cultural context as much as it can.  They have a Take Back Your Time Day coming up on October 24th-- nine weeks before the end of the year, because Europeans work the equivalent of nine weeks (360 hours) less a year than Americans on average, between more paid time off and less overtime-- and I will surely write more about it as the time approaches.  But I encourage you to check out the website in the meantime!
As for me, I never let a vacation day go to waste, but I also don't always pick time over money.  This is a little complicated, but...  I get 15 vacation days and 9 comp days (which function the same as vacation, really).  I roll over the maximum of 10 days vacation every year (I used all 9 comp days my first year but none of my then-10 vacation days-- mostly because I wasn't eligible to during my first six months, which included the summer-- and have maintained those in reserve ever since), but I've used my full allotment of 10 vacation days in year two, and am on pace to use all 15 in year three.  I'm also able to cash out up to 3 unused comp days at the end of each year, and I try to do so, but I also make sure to use at least 6 comp days so I don't leave anything on the table.
There are definitely times I'm tempted not to take vacation because there's too much to do.  It's usually hectic and stressful catching up when I get back, and sometimes I feel bad about important work being delayed when I'm not there to do it. But taking time off makes me happy, whether it's for a long vacation, an extended weekend, or just a single day off when I really need it.  I like spending time with people I care about, visiting interesting places and doing interesting things, and having time that's obligation-free.  And I think in the long run it's good for my performance at work, too; when I've gone too long without a vacation, my focus and concentration wanders and my stress levels increase, and I'm just not at my best. 
How much vacation time do you get?  Do you use all of it?  How do you feel about that? 

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Things That Really Matter

These are the things that really matter to me:

  • Loving people and being loved in return
  • Looking up at the night sky in a rural area and seeing an impossible number of stars
  • Laughing with friends or family so hard we can't breathe
  • Knowing someone else's life is better because I've touched it
  • Curling up with my beloved
  • Singing along to music at the top of my lungs
  • Eating sticky s'mores by a smoky campfire
  • Coming up for air, emotions swirling, at the end of reading a new book that's touched me deeply
  • Seeing a child's eyes and face light up with happiness when I enter a room
  • A happy, purring cat nuzzling my face with her nose
  • My favorite team coming from behind to win in dramatic fashion
  • Attending a demonstration for something I care about and looking around at a vast sea of passionate, dedicated faces
  • Being wrapped up in a warm, tight hug
  • The breathless, triumphant feeling of doing something I'm afraid of and succeeding
  • My boyfriend and I finishing each others' sentences
  • Finishing a piece of writing I'm proud of
  • Singing all the lyrics to "We Didn't Start the Fire" with my sister
  • The smell of cookies baking
  • Spotting a wild animal I've been hoping to see
  • Putting a lot of time and effort into something for a person I love and then seeing the look on their face that makes it all worthwhile
  • Coming in out of the cold and warming up with hot chocolate
  • Hearing a new joke based on a terrible pun that I find hilarious even if no one else does
  • Late-night discussions with friends who dare to dream about a better world and work to make it real
  • Accomplishing something difficult that I wasn't sure I could do
  • Watching a favorite movie for the umpteenth time and reciting the lines aloud
  • Swimming in refreshing, cool water on a hot day
  • Solving a complicated puzzle
  • Making a new meal for the first time that turns out delicious
  • My parents driving an hour each way to see me for an hour on a business trip just because they like spending time with me
  • Hearing stories about people doing the right thing in difficult circumstances
  • Reaching a breathtaking waterfall or pond or vista after a long hike
  • Curling up in a warm, soft blanket and reading a favorite book

Life is incredible, and it can end in an instant. Instead of giving in to fear or anger, perhaps we can use our sadness and our memories to remind us to shape our lives around the things that really matter.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Share a car-- save the earth and your wallet!

As I've written before, it's a great idea to walk or bike instead of driving when you can.  But what if sometimes walking, biking, and public transit just won't work?  Is car ownership the only alternative?

Well, especially if you live in an urban area, why not look into car-sharing?

When you join a car sharing program, you can have access to cars for as short or as long a time as you need them.  You can take one for an hour to run an errand or pick someone up at the airport-- or for days at a time.  They have a variety of different cars, and numerous convenient locations.  Over 100,000 people are using these programs nationwide, and many more around the world.

There are a ton of benefits, financial and environmental, to car-sharing.  Obviously owning a car is really expensive, between purchase price (and interest if you have a car loan), insurance, parking, maintenance, fees-- so skipping those costs can be hugely beneficial, depending on how often you'd use the shared car.  I've seen it cited many times that car sharing is better financially than owning if you drive less than 7,500 miles a year (I can't vouch for the figure, since I haven't seen the original source/how it was calculated).  This also works well, by the way, if you need more than one car but you don't really need two. 

But the real beauty of car sharing is the way it forces you to think about whether you really need to use a car or not.  If you have a car in the garage, it's very so easy it to take it wherever you're going, even if it's just down the street.  That's bad for the environment, and it's not so good for your wallet, either.  On the other hand, if you have to pay for your shared-car usage as you go, it's a great way to get yourself considering if there are other, better ways to travel.  More walking and biking is good for the planet, your health, and your happiness, and it's blissfully free.  And public transit, too, is environmentally friendly and cheap.  Yet those shared cars are still available if the car really is the best way to go.  In a lot of ways, it's the best of both worlds.

Another environmental benefit:  many of these programs make a point of filling their fleets with hybrids and other high-fuel-efficiency vehicles.  Of course, this varies from program to program; Your Mileage May Vary. (Sorry, had to say it!)

Check out this MSN article, which talks about a lot of the benefits of shared cars, and be sure to scroll down to the table at the bottom, listing 41 cities with shared car programs complete with links-- some locations may surprise you!  (Also, here's another perk-- the opportunity to drive a wide variety of new, different cars.)
And if you like the idea but the formal car-sharing programs aren't available in your area or don't fit your needs, be creative.  Are there friends, neighbors, or relatives you could share a car with more informally?

The MSN article gives you links to just about every car sharing program there is.  And other resources include articles here, here, here, and more-- just search around!
Have you tried a car sharing service?  What did you think?  Have you considered trying car-sharing but decided against it, and if so, why?  What have your experiences been?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Monthly financial/net worth update

A little late as usual (though almost exactly a month since last time), here's my monthly financial update.  My net worth has hit the big 2-0!
Savings: $20,690 (down $661 or -3.1%)
Retirement: $13,841 (up $743 or 5.7%)
Debt: $13,845 (down $1,350 or 8.9%)
Net worth: $20,686 (up $1,432 or 7.4%)
% of 2006 giving goal: 41%  (last month: 39%)
That teeny increase in the giving number is embarassing.  But that's exactly why I started listing it up here-- so I can get embarassed into shape. I have a long list of organizations I want to give to, I just have to shake off my procrastination and do it!  There are four months left in the year; if I'm not at or near 50% by the end of this month, I've got a lot of 'splainin to do...

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

QOTD Marathon wrap-up: Here are my answers! (Part 2)

As you know, we had a terrific Question-of-the-Day Marathon in August. Below you can read the rest of my answers for the month (Part 1 here). Enjoy, and let me know if you want me to elaborate on anything!

Q: What’s the best deal that you’ve ever gotten in a store?

A: I’m not sure about my best deal ever, but I always get mindboggled when I’m shopping at an off-price store and I see what the original price was– once I got a $90 dress for $5!

Q: Do you have any side income other than your paychecks?

A: Does doing Pinecone surveys count? And then the little bit that comes from my blog, I guess.

I also have two vague dreams for side work for the future: writing fiction, and selling decorated cookies! The first I’m actively (though slowly) moving towards, the second may always be an idle fantasy….

Q: What are your vices?

A: My dessert habit is both a financial and nutritional vice... I've gotta keep well-stocked with cookies and ice cream!

Q: While growing up, what were you taught about personal money management by your immediate family and surroundings?

A: Good question, and something I’ve been meaning to blog about.

We never talked too much about money directly when I was a kid, but some things I picked up from my parents were:

  1. If you really want something, you can find a way to afford it. As a kid, I knew that although I couldn’t have everything we wanted, if there were things I really wanted, the family would make it happen financially. Things like vacations (not lavish ones, but not super-cheap, either) were important to us as a family so we took them every year. I never felt rich, and we weren’t, but I saw money as a tool my parents always seemed able to manage to help us do what we most wanted to do. (In retrospect, I know that some of the trade-offs included things like not saving enough for their retirement.)
  2. If you really want something, you have to work to make it happen. For example, when I was 12 and fell in love with horses, my parents told me they’d pay for only two riding lessons a month. Either I could be satisfied with that, or pay for the rest myself. I worked in the stables, got a paper route, and babysat—and I got my weekly riding lessons.
  3. Spending money to impress other people is silly and wasteful. My family was very down-to-earth on this front, not much emphasis on status symbols or conspicuous consumption, and as a result I (thankfully) have no comprehension of how people can spend so much money on things because they’re brand names or trendy.

Q: What was the very first thing you purchased using credit? What was the very last thing you purchased using credit?

A: The first thing... hmm, I definitely don't remember. My best guess would be an airline ticket home from college, since that was back before I got in the habit of charging everyday expenses.

The most recent thing is groceries this evening.

Q: How much of a balance do you leave on your checking account(s)?

A: Way too much... I'm in the habit of keeping $1,000 in checking, but I know it's silly and I'm trying to work my way down.

Q: If tomorrow you were to suddenly find yourself unemployed, what would your action plan be and how much trouble do you feel you’d be in?

A: I'd be alright; I have enough in savings to last me a good long time. I wouldn't *want* to burn through a lot of my savings, though. It'd probably actually push me towards moving to the Washington DC area, a move I've been wanting to make. It wouldn't make much sense to do a job-hunt here in Chicago and then move in a relatively short time. My parents live in the DC area, so I'd probably move in with them for a bit post-move if I couldn't find a job.

I'd also like to say that I'd use my unemployed free time to work on writing fiction-- I hope I would-- although I have a suspicion things'd be stressful enough that it wouldn't be too productive.

Q: What is your hobby and how much money do you spend on it?

A: Good question!

My main hobby is writing fiction. It's pretty much free, unless you count the $10 or so every other month when it's my turn to provide food and drinks for my writing group.

Q: What factors affected the career you chose? Was it purely about the pay or were there other aspects that influenced the decision?

A: Well, I don’t think I really have a “career,” per se– I intend that whatever work I do will always be centered around making a positive difference in society, but I hope to try a wide variety of different experiences toward that end. Suffice it to say that money is pretty low on the list of what I value in a job (after social impact, personal enjoyment, personal growth and development, work hours and flexibility, etc)– although to be perfectly honest it pops up in my thinking more often than I wish were the case.

Q: In the past 24 hours, what have you done in relation to money?

A: The only purchase was buying snacks for my desk at work, $4.07. I did check my bank account and credit card statements online, though, and scheduled my credit card payment for next Monday.

Q: What does money mean to you?

A: For me, money is a tool, or a means to my ends. I’d go so far as to call it a “necessary evil”– I wish I didn’t have to worry about money in any of my decisions. But since of course I do have to think about money, I’m determined to completely master it instead of having it master me. It’s a tool I want to use as skillfully as possible in order to promote a good, happy life for myself and others. It doesn’t mean anything intrinsically to me, but I can control it to maximize the things that do matter.

Monday, September 04, 2006

QOTD Marathon wrap-up: Here are my answers! (Part 1)

As you know, we had a terrific Question-of-the-Day Marathon in August. I answered almost every question (not always on time!), and below I've compiled my answers for easy perusal. Obviously because of the format I didn't always go into great depth-- let me know if any of my responses interest you and you'd like to see me flesh it out into a full post!

Q: If your budget required you to give up something that you like because you just didn’t have enough money to cover your expenses, what would that be?

A: Honestly, it would have to be moving to a cheaper apartment, giving up the convenience of the current one, which is a terrific value for its location but really I don’t need to live so close to downtown.

Other than that, I guess there’s taking fewer vacations, spending less on gifts and treats for other people, and switching to dial-up instead of high-speed internet…

Q: What is the weekly average cost per person for food in your household, including groceries, snacks and eating out?

A: Man, I feel a little weird about my numbers being so low, but I’m at around $25/week for groceries and maybe $10/week eating out. I’m guessing that part of it is being a vegetarian, and part is not buying as many fresh fruits and veggies as I should…

Q: What was the last thing that you splurged on that you didn't really need?

A: Nothing big that I can think of, but I’ve definitely treated myself to ice cream or frozen coffee drinks, etc, too often this summer…

Q: How many credit cards do you have and what's their combined credit limit?

A: Just two– the MBNA I’ve had since I started college, which is now up to a limit of $15,000, and which I stopped using 1 1/2 years ago when it stopped giving me Barnes & Noble reward certificates; and the Citi card I got in its place and now use regularly, with a limit of $8,200. I never carry a balance; I use them for the rewards/cash back (and also because the statements help me keep track of what I’m spending on).

Q: Which is more important to financial success: saving money or making your income as high as possible?

A: I think it depends on how you define "financial success." If you mean "having as much money left over after expenses as possible," then logistically, it's probably going to be increased income that gets you there. However, if you define "financial success" as "having the ability to live your life in a way that makes you happiest and most fulfilled," cutting expenses may be a better route (or at least, it is for me).

Increasing your income can involve a lot of sacrifices and tradeoffs that may not be worth the payoffs in the end. (It may also involve taking risks that some people are not in a financial position to handle to begin with.) Saving money and living frugally, on the other hand, pushes and inspires you to think creatively about ways to make yourself and others happy that aren't centered around spending money.

I personally would consider myself financially successful if I'm able to get by while doing the work I'm most passionate about and work only the number of hours that make sense for me and my family-- requirements that might very well require decreasing income. I know that not many people define "financial success" that way, though.

Q: In terms of your annual gross salary, what percentage do you save? Are you happy with that amount or do you think you could do better?

15% of gross goes to retirement (between 401(k) and Roth IRA), and I'm guessing it's about 20% that goes to other savings (15% of my monthly gross is automatically deducted from checking to savings, and I usually funnel more over manually throughout the month).

Q: If you had $10,000, one day, and one store to spend it in, what store would you choose?

Oh, man. I think I'd have to jump on the Ikea bandwagon. My apartment could use a major upgrade, but I always shy away from the costs of new furniture; I'd load up on good stuff that'd hopefully last a long time. And I think $10,000 would be enough to make that decision not only practical but fun!

Q: If you had to pinpoint the one financial decision (good or bad) that put you on the path to where you are now, what would it be? If you could do it over, would you change your decision?

Great question! And some great answers.

No real turning point jumps out at me, so I guess I'll have to go with deciding, after I got my first job out of college, not to upgrade my lifestyle when my income went up. Sticking with the same old used furniture, only buying as much new clothing as necessary for my job, not buying a car since I really didn't need one. Although my expenses went up some, I tried to view my extra income as extra savings, not extra spending money.

Q: What do you consider an expensive night out?

We don't usually do dinner and going out for drinks on the same night. $50 for two for dinner would feel expensive, and probably $30-40 for drinks for two.

Q: What percentage of financial success comes from “financial skills” and what percentage comes from “character?”

Interesting question. I don't think you can succeed without some amount of character (unless you started out very well off to begin with), but struggling financially doesn't necessarily indicate you have "bad character." And there's obviously more to the equation than character and skills, especially considering where the person starts from and what resources they have available to help themselves.

For example, there are some people who are very frugal and self-disciplined on low incomes, but because they lack knowledge and experience (and access to better options) they do things like using payday lenders at exorbitant rates. So your "skills" category would help them do better once they understood the implications of payday lending. But even if they had both the skills and the character, they might still be struggling.

It also depends on how you define "financial success"!

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Retirement Planning in Your 20s (& Beyond), Part 4: Riding Compound Interest to the Finish Line

So you've estimated the big number you need for retirement and it's freaking you out. Well, if you're in your 20s, you're in luck. We can take advantage of the wonders of compounding interest, so our goals aren't as insurmountable as they seem. (Well, obviously, everyone gets to take advantage of compound interest, but the younger you are, the more it pays off.)

Just think about it. In Part 3, I mentioned the Rule of 72-- take 72, divide it by your interest rate/predicted returns/etc, and you get the number of years it takes your money to double. So, if we assume 8% returns, your money will double every 9 years (72 / 8 = 9). If you have $1,000 today, you'll have $2,000 in 9 years, $4,000 in 18 years, $8,000 in 27 years, $16,000 in 36 years, and $32,000 in 45 years. See the benefits of starting early? Your savings can be half as much as the person 9 years older than you or one-quarter as much as the person 18 years older than you, and if returns are consistent you'll have the same amount at the same retirement age. This is why it pays off so much more to save when you're young than when you're older-- think about that when you're making your savings decisions in your 20s!

I'm basing my calculations on a retirement age of 68, in the year 2050, which is 44 years away. For curiosity's sake, how much would I need in savings today to end up with the $1.6 million I've projected I need? Well, my money ought to double nearly 5 times, so by my math, I'd need a little more than $50,000.

$50,000. Doesn't that sound a lot more manageable than $1.6 million?

Of course, I don't have $50,000 now, and I won't have it anytime soon. I have about $14,000. So how about another easy number-- 36 years out from retirement, enough time for my savings to double four times with 8% returns. For me, that's 2014, eight years from now, at age 32. If I end up with $100,000 by then, and my other assumptions hold up, I could theoretically leave my money to compound, never save another dollar for retirement, and still reach my goals. I'd have $100,000 in 2014, $200,000 in 2023, $400,000 in 2032, $800,000 in 2041, and $1,600,000 in 2050. (Isn't that exciting to watch?!)

(Important disclaimer: don't forget about taxes! The $100K I need by age 32 is the after-tax equivalent. The amount in Roth IRAs is fair game, but anything tax deferred is going to shrink when it's withdrawn. So if you have a certain amount in a tax-deferred account like a 401(k) or a traditional IRA, you'll need to account for taxes. For example, I'll reduce my tax-deferred savings by, say, 33%. The state of taxes decades in the future is yet another of those hard-to-predict things, but I think 33% is a pretty fair estimate. So, for example, I should think of the $4,500 in my 401(k) as equivalent to $3,000; if you add the $9,500 in my Roth IRA, that makes $12,500. The $14,000 number that I use in my net worth calculations-- the sum of the account balances-- isn't the right one to use for this discussion.)

I think I am going to try hard to reach that $100,000 goal by age 32. It's ambitious, like all good goals are, but also realistically acheivable. Then everything I save for retirement after that time would be pure gravy (well, also insurance against all of the ways my assumptions could be wrong, but that's a given). I like that thought a lot.

You can come up with a similar goal. Just fiddle around with the Rule of 72 until you come up with a goal you think works for you. You could assume 8% returns like me, but set a goal of 1/8 of your retirement "number" to be reached 27 years ahead of retirement (instead of my 1/16, to be reached 36 years ahead of time). You could assume 9% returns, and set your short-term goal at 1/16 of your retirement goal, 32 years before your retirement date (doubling four times, once every 8 years). You could assume 7% returns (so your money doubles every 10.29 years) and look to reach 1/8 of your retirement goal 31 years before retirement. See how flexible it is?

So, there we are. I've estimated my annual retirement expenses in Part 1, thought through Social Security in Part 2, calculated my needed savings in Part 3, and now I've come up with a plan to reach that total with time to spare. I have a goal-- to save $100,000 for retirement by 2014-- and the confidence that if I do so I have a reasonable chance of reaching my retirement goals without significant additional savings after that point. I'm sure I will continue to save past 2014, but this goal also opens things up for me to imagine more flexible ways of working and living in my 30s, 40s, and 50s which focus on the present without worrying so much about the future. I've enjoyed this process, and I hope you have too.

How about you? Do you have a short-term goal for your retirement savings? Do your calculations assume you'll contribute a set dollar amount (or percent of income) up until the day you retire, or do you hope to reach what you need early so the rest is just gravy? Or do you just plan to retire as soon as you've hit the number that'll carry you through?

Friday, September 01, 2006

Eating less or no meat: a frugal choice and so much more

I chose to become a vegetarian for a lot of reasons-- animal welfare, environmental, health-- but frugality was not one of them. (Especially considering I was 12 at the time!) Nevertheless, it's a nice side benefit. I'm glad this is one of those areas where both my money and my values win at the same time.

I'm going to talk a bit about a variety of reasons to be vegetarian, hopefully without getting too preachy. Please keep in mind that almost all of these benefits still apply in part even if you only decide to cut back on your meat consumption rather than completely eliminating it!

  • Meat is an incredibly inefficient food (one reason why it's usually more expensive!). It takes from 5 to 16 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of meat. This has profound implications both for the environment and for the world's poor and malnourished people.
  • Health: According to the American Diatetic Association, a vegetarian or vegan diet decreases cholesterol and blood pressure, and vegetarians have lower rates of heart disease, some types of cancer, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes. Along with these health consequences inherent in meat-eating, there are the additional hazards of eating meat from animals who are often sick and pumped full of chemicals, hormones, and antibiotics. There's lots more of this stuff, so Google away.
  • Animal Welfare: Factory farming is hideously inhumane to animals. (Warning: these details are graphic and disturbing.) These animals live in cramped, filthy, and completely unnatural conditions. Many of them end up sick and with broken bones, suffering and in pain for most of their lives, and some die slowly of their illnesses without treatment. They are usually mutilated during life (castrated, debeaked, horns removed, etc) without painkillers and slaughtered at a young age. Chickens are not required to be stunned before they're killed, while cows and pigs are typically stunned in an inadequate, haphazard manner, so as a result millions of animals slowly bleed to death or are boiled alive. See here, here, here, and more. This is the reason for vegetarianism I feel most strongly about; however, I'm also extremely hypocritical since I haven't managed the self-discipline to be vegan, despite the similar situations of laying hens and dairy cows. (Being vegan is also even better for the planet and its people than vegetarianism, as well as healthier.)
After all that, it seems callous and petty to talk about saving money as a reason to become vegetarian or eat less meat, but perhaps it may be the straw that breaks the camel's back. (Not literally! Camels have feelings too! Down with the straw industry and its abuse of camels!) Obviously the costs will vary depending on how you design your diet, but in general, meat costs less than most of the wonderful, tasty vegetarian options out there. Most of my favorite meals are centered around rice, beans, lentils, pasta, and/or potatoes, all of which are damn cheap. (Of course, it's true that if you try to substitute free-range and/or organic meat, dairy, and eggs, the prices go back up. I'm planning a follow-up post looking for options for free-range, more humane eggs and dairy, but they're not likely to be frugal solutions.) Plus, the aforementioned health benefits are also likely to pay off financially in the long term.

So take a moment and think about if any of these reasons connect for you-- environmental, world hunger/sustainability, health, animal welfare, and/or financial-- and whether it might make sense for you to decrease or end your consumption of meat, or at least to give it a trial run.

Okay. Getting off my soapbox. Now it's your turn... what do you think?